History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Century of Blood

After the Doom, a huge cataclysmic event that destroyed the Valyrian peninsula and the seat of Valyrian power, everything started to go to hell in a hand basket.

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With the center of their empire destroyed all the little city states and lords with half a brain realized that they no longer had to fear a legion of dragons descending from on high to wipe them out if they stepped out of line and promptly revolted.  There were three major events during the Century of Blood that would shape the history of the Westeros and Essos for ever.

The first of these big events was the attempted reconquest of the Valyrian Empire by the city of Volantis.  Volantis was the single largest Valyrian city that survived the Doom and realized that it was in a position to reconquer and preserve the Valyrian Freehold.  As a result, they promptly invaded and re conquered the cities of Myr and Lys.  However, their attempts to conquer the remaining cities who had declared their independence: Pentos, Norvos, Quohor, Tyrosh, and Lorath met with failure and eventual military defeat partly due to the aid of the mysterious “secret city” of Braavos and the refusal of the last remaining Dragonlords to help Volantis re establish control: the Targaryens of Dragonstone.

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While all this was going on in the former empire the Targaryens were busy plotting their own moves on Dragonstone.  Aegon did not want to re establish the Valyrian Empire, instead he looked west and saw a massive land filled with rival kings and ruler ripe for the taking.  Westeros was currently undergoing two huge invasions: the Ironborn from the north and what would become the Dornish from the south.

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We’ve already talked about the Ironborn and their empire but it’s worth mentioning Dorne.  They currently live in the southern most part of Westeros and are not native to the island.  They were actually from Essos and came to Westeros as refugees from the rule of the Valyrians.  We’ll talk about them later but for now there is one more important event we need to talk about, one that shook the entire known world to its core and still makes the cities of Essos and Westeros shake in terror: the Dothraki.

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The Dothraki were nomadic horsemen from the large steppes of central Essos known as the Dothraki Sea.

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We’ll cover aspects of Dothraki culture and their historical counterparts next time because it really deserves a post of its own but for now all you need to understand is the impact they had on Essos.  The Dothraki came charging out of the steppes like wildfire and with no central power to keep them in check they ran rampant, killing and burning everything in their path.

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Only two cities were able to withstand their rampage.  Mureen was able to buy them off with gold while Qohor was able to finally halt the advances of the horde by beating them in a pitched battle thanks to a contingent of Unsullied warrior eunuchs.  Despite the Century of Blood living up to its name the cities and culture of Essos remained and even began to prosper.  While the Valyrians had fallen it was replaced by a patchwork of old tradition and new cultures, ready to welcome the rise of Westeros with everything from goods to soldiers.

As stated in the previous article the Doom of Valyria mirrors the fall of the Roman Empire in our history.  While there was no cataclysmic event that shattered the Romans all at once there were several smaller events that led to the collapse of half the Empire and the sack of Rome itself.

While theories about the fall of Rome abound from the the struggling economy to the decline of moral principles, one of the most popular and dramatic explanations was the hostile takeover of Rome by barbarian hordes. See, the Empire had been suffering almost constant civil war, plague, and barbarian raids starting in 235 A.D and ending around 285 A.D, a time known as the Crisis of the Third Century.  By its end the Empire was teetering on the brink of collapse when the emperor Diocletian decided to split the Empire into the East and West Roman Empires.

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It worked for a while with Rome continuing to exist and the new Eastern Roman Empire flourishing from its new capital of Constantinople.  However, while the East prospered the West faced a new set of challenges when a large number of Germanic tribes began to move into Roman territory and set of a new set of wars.

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These new tribes like Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were fleeing a greater threat, one of the many historical equivalents to the Dothraki, the Huns.

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We’ll talk more about the Huns and their descendants later but for now all we need to know is that they fought from horseback, came from the steppes of Central Eurasia, and were reknown for their ferocity in battle.  Once the Germanic tribes were clear of the Huns by entering Roman territory they struck a deal with Rome.  In exchange for allowing to live on Roman land the Germanic tribes would help protect the empire from the Huns.  Sadly, it didn’t work out for long and in 476 A.D an Ostrogoth leader named Odoacer (who had adopted Roman customs and rules but was still culturally Germanic) sacked Rome in order to pay his soldiers and by default became King of Italy.  For all intensive purposes, Rome had fallen.

The reaction to the sacking of Rome mirrors the ending of the Century of Blood in the Game of Thrones universe both in the reactions it fostered and effect it would have on the former empire.  After the hostile takeover by the barbarian hordes Italy was no longer unified.  Instead it was carved into various small kingdoms ruled by different ethnic groups that would eventually looked like this.

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How each of those states sprung into existence is for another time but it mirrors the formation of the Free Cities in Essos.

As for the attempted re establishment of the Valaryian Freehold by Volantis that shares similarities with the Eastern Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that Rome had fallen in 476 the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople was thriving.  Under the rule of the emperor Justinian.

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The Byzantines invaded and retook most of Italy, and while he was initially successful his reconquest stretched Byzantine resources too far and left them vulnerable to revolt and even more foreign invasions.  The Roman Empire was done with for good this time and would never rise again.  Europe was fractured into hundreds of petty kingdoms all fighting with each other.  Now all the players and pieces are in place for the events of Game of Thrones and the Medieval Ages.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Ghiscari Empire

WARNING:

THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE CURRENT SEASON OF THE GAME OF THRONES AND MOST OF THE BOOKS.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today we’re going to talk about one of the oldest and most powerful civilizations in Essos and in the entire Game of Thrones universe: The Ghiscari Empire.

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The Ghiscari were one of the first and most powerful empires in the world until they were eventually conquered by the Valyrians (who we will talk about on Friday) and eventually reduced to a handful of cities along Slaver’s Bay: Astapoor, Yunkai, and Meeren.  This is where Daenerys Targaryen has been spending most of her time throughout the series and books and it is the remnants of Ghiscari culture that have caused her the most problems.

Not a whole lot is known about the Ghiscari Empire itself, most of it is so old that a lot of the original culture and heritage has been lost to legend and old ruins.  However, there are three things we definitely know about the Ghiscari.  First, they were famous for their fighting force of “lock step legions”, groups of soldiers who were famous for their rigid discipline and fighting in close knit ranks with spears and shields.

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Second, they worshiped the Harpy, a wild creature with the head and upper body of a woman and the body of a bird.

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Whether or not the Harpy was the only god the Ghiscari worshiped or if it was just part of a pantheon it is widely believed the Harpy played a major part in Ghiscari religion and is so important to the region that it is currently being used as a symbol for everyone who doesn’t like Daenerys’ rule to rally around and form the group the Sons of the Harpy.

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And then there is the final, and most lasting part, of the Ghiscari legacy and perpetual source of conflict and violent debate: slavery.  The Ghiscari were renowned for their ability to enslave and subjugate other people.  In fact, they were so good at it that when the Valyrian Freehold decided that the Ghiscari Empire would be a lovely addition to their new empire the Ghiscari were able to survive and prosper by convincing their new conquerors they could be useful as slave drivers and trainers.

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Today the Ghiscari Empire is a memory since most of their ruling elite were wiped out.  The rest of the Ghiscari realized they had been conquered and assimilated into their new culture, so much so that the original Ghiscari language has been lost.  We’ve met several of these descendants over the course of the show and in some cases.

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It did not end well.

The Ghiscari have also ensured their legacy through the use of the Unsullied, the famed warrior eunuchs that fight in a matter similar to the lock step legions of the old Empire.

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and the worship of the Harpy has continued, although I would assume that there are many powerful people who would prefer to see that particular god disappear for good.

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Long story short, while the Ghiscari Empire no longer exists and most elements of its culture have been wiped out or faded with time there are many people (usually slave masters or powerful families around Slavers Bay) who look back on the Ghiscari with pride and as a part of their glorious past.

When we look at the history and culture of the Ghiscari they are just vague enough with just enough nods to a whole bunch of ancient cultures to make classification incredibly difficult.  For example, if you watch the show you see Daenerys living in a giant pyramid that was built by the Ghiscari, a building that would make them similar to the ancient Egyptians.

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While their “lockstep legions” and massive empire put them on par with the Romans.  But I think the Ghiscari occupy a place in history between these two cultures and are the Game of Thrones equivalent of the Ancient Greeks.

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First, there’s the name, if you listen hard enough “Ghis” and “Greece” sound kind of similar.  Second, there are the military similarities.  Granted, the Ghiscari soldiers were called legions but their fighting style of closed ranks and blocks of foot soldiers tightly pressed together bears more of a resemblance to the Greek phalanx and hoplite warfare.

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Third, there is the subject of slavery.  While the Greeks didn’t build a reputation as slavers that was as brutal as the Ghiscari, they were certainly enthusiastic and supportive of the practice.  Most of Greece’s most famous philosophers like Plato and Aristotle believed that slavery wasn’t just right, it was necessary as part of the natural world order.  While there were some Greeks who spoke out against slavery like the Stoics they were more concerned with personal moral and philosophical perfection than freeing slaves.

Finally there is the impact the Greeks had on the world at large.  What makes the Greeks especially similar to the Ghiscari is their history of maintaining fragments of their culture and serving as an inspiration for the future despite their long history of being conquered.  It’s pretty clear that not a lot of people speak ancient Greek anymore but the impact the Greeks had on the world as a whole, and the people who would eventually come to rule them, makes them perfect candidates for the historical equivalent of the Ghiscari Empire.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: An Introduction to Essos

So now we’re at a point in the history of Game of Thrones where we can take a break from Westeros and explore some of the other parts of George R.R Martin’s universe.  Before we go on there is a quick correction.  I stated in previous posts that Aegon the Conqueror was born in Essos, the continent across the sea from Westeros.  It turns out that several very kind and helpful people have pointed out he was actually born on Dragonstone, a small island technically part of Westeros.  I was wrong and the internet was right.

Aegon’s lineage is interesting because while he was born in Westeros his family legacy places him firmly in the neighboring continent of Essos.

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Now if you thought Westeros was big, Essos is even more massive.  Essos plays an important part in several key subplots of the books and show serving as the base of operations for Daenerys “I am a goddess among men because I have the last three dragons and I am drop dead gorgeous” Targaryen and as a nice and busy stopover for any character that needs to either run away from Westerosi political intrigue or hire someone to make their problems go away.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse and interesting ethnic groups and cultures to look at and observe and most excitingly (and welcoming considering I need at least six more weeks of material for this blog) it has a long and detailed history of mighty empires and great works of art, culture, and magic created while the First Men and Andals were still fighting in Westeros.  Starting with the slave masters of the Ghiscari Empire and ending with the Doom of Valyria and the beginnings of Aegon’s Conquest, we are going to spend the next couple of weeks talking about the pre history of Essos.

This blog post may seem strange and short since we’re simply laying the ground work for future posts but it just wouldn’t be complete without a historical comparison.  It’s been widely alluded to before, and you probably won’t be too shocked to hear this, but Essos is basically Continental Europe and Russia.

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You can see the resemblance in shape and if we look at the history of Europe, especially everything east of Germany and around the Mediterranean Sea, there are quite a few similarities.  While the Celts still ruled Britain and the Saxons hadn’t arrived, the rest of Europe had already seen some of the greatest empires and civilizations known to world history rise and fall.  Starting with the Golden Age of Greece and ending with the Saxon invasion of Britain, we are going to compare the pre history of Essos to the long and detailed history of pre Medieval Continental Europe.